Nineteen Questions with T. C. Boyle

Brandon M. Stickney

Cover Image: T.C. Boyle, Wikipedia


Santa Barbara, California—It’s like he’s saying, “I’ll take you there.” When it comes to freethinkers, American author T. C. Boyle (Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Southern California) is the Daliesque prince, a commentator for the tragicomedy that is our mutual existence. When the subtle meets the surreal, Boyle is at the helm. Readers of his new Outside Looking In, a sit-in with Dr. Timothy Leary, and The Road to Wellville, a crash diet with Dr. Kellogg, wonder: “Where did this guy Boyle come from?”

Now we know.

Did you have a happy childhood?

I grew up in suburban New York, near the town of Peekskill (as readers of World’s End will know). I went to the same school with the same neighborhood kids from kindergarten through eighth grade, then to the local high school. It was an idyllic time to be a young American. I played sports obsessively and roamed the local woods like a Huck Finn whose Pap was a whole lot more understanding than his was. God existed back then. The Yankees won every game. The snow chilled me, and the sun warmed me. So: yes.

When did you begin writing and why?

I started writing as an undergrad. I went to the State University of New York at Potsdam to study music but flunked my audition, so I declared a history major—and then a double major in history and English, once I discovered Flannery O’Connor. In my junior year, I was accepted in Krishna Vaid’s creative writing course (see my essay “This Monkey, My Back,” for further enlightenment).

What was your first publishing experience?

I was twenty-four, still living in New York, and I sent out my stories blind to various magazines. The first of them, “The OD & Hepatitis Railroad or Bust,” reflecting on my experiences as an essential cog of the drug culture, was accepted by The North American Review. It was a watershed moment for me, as I now felt ratified by the larger society and determined to mine my art as deeply as I could.

Why do you choose historical fiction?

I do not exclusively choose historical fiction. Most of the short stories have contemporary settings (though, of course, they become historical the moment they’re written). Of my seventeen novels, I count seven as having contemporary settings. That said, I love to explore history by way of discovering how we got to where we are today. Why do we eat cornflakes? Ask Dr. Kellogg. Why do we repress our sexuality? Ask Dr. Kinsey. Why are we racists and colonialists? Ask Mungo Park.

Which author(s) are you unable to put down? You’ve mentioned Marquez.

There are far too many to name here. For today, let’s include DeLillo, Updike, Cheever, Calvino, and Borges.

Explain your process—idea to outline.

There is no outline. I do research, then start writing. If I need more research, depending on the direction a given book is taking me, I go back to it. Throughout the process I remind myself—as Doctorow, who was exclusively a historical novelist, pointed out—that the research is not an end in itself but rather a means to discovering a story.

Was Timothy Leary as charismatic as he is in Outside Looking In?

I do think so, at least from what I’ve been able to glean from my research. In my era—the hippie era, that is—we saw him in his later years, when he was a kind of clown. What a transformation!

Talk about LSD and sex. It’s a good idea?

Sex is a very good idea. If it weren’t for the hormonal drives that produce it, we great apes wouldn’t be here, chewing the planet to pieces. As for sex on drugs, that depends on the individual. Leary spoke of it—of the compelling sex he had on LSD—and so it is included in the novel.

Do you still believe in the dream? Will Americans ever become enlightened?

I never believed in the dream. As for the second part of the question, look who our “president” is.

Who was (or were) your mentor(s)?

I was fortunate to have mentors throughout my life, and they are too many to name here. The aforementioned Krishna Vaid (the Hindu novelist) was one of them, as were his colleagues at SUNY Potsdam, Kelsey Harder (in English) and Vincent Knapp (in history). All saw something in me at a time when I was off-the-rails crazy and determined to defeat expectations. Later, at Iowa, I had Vance Bourjaily and John Cheever, as well as Frederick P. W. McDowell, who chaired my PhD committee. How desperately I needed the approval of them all!

What were your parents like?

My parents were working class. I am the first in the family to go to college. Both instilled the work ethic in me and gave me a loving, stable home so I could have something to rebel against.

How have you evolved?

I’ve developed and lost teeth and, over the years, have discarded several tons of finger-and-toenail clippings. As for my work, I began as an absurdist/surrealist exclusively, but over the years have come to see the value in many different modes of fiction, as I think is reflected in my work. A book such as San Miguel (straightforward realism, sans irony) would have been impossible for me early on.

What is your daily routine?

I arise early, take a walk, come home and clean up after my wife, then eat breakfast while perusing the newspapers, after which I run through my emails, website, and Twitter account by way of warmup. Then I work. When I’m done with work—usually by two or three in the afternoon—I play.

Is your persona part of the story?

Rarely. Though some of my stories veer close to autobiography, they are all fictions. “Greasy Lake,” “Up Against the Wall,” “If the River Was Whiskey,” “Back in the Eocene,” “Birnam Wood”—these all reflect a bit more of myself than you will find in others of my stories.

What did you learn from teaching?

How to be a mentor in the best sense, the sense of guiding beginning artists toward realizing their own artistic visions without making them versions of yourself.

Does fact interrupt fiction?

I am so fascinated by the historical scenarios I give you that I would have to say that the facts predominate: this shit really happened, as crazy as it may seem (cue The Road to Wellville). That said, as I point out in the author’s note to Water Music, the story must take precedence over the facts and bend them to its will.

Describe your writing room.

It looks out on the woods through a bank of windows. The woods comfort me. Ray Carver, another of my friends and mentors, said he liked to stare at a blank wall while working because there are no distractions in a blank wall. I can appreciate that. But I’ve got woods.

What’s being seventy like?

It’s like being one of the walking dead. I find myself hungering for human brains. Hot, wet, and raw.

What remains as your dream writing project?

The next one. And the one after that. I am only interested in fiction because fiction is a trip as potent as the LSD trips in my latest novel, Outside Looking In. I hope I never get to the end of this ride I’m on, though of course, the end is built into the beginning of everything.

Brandon M. Stickney

Brandon M. Stickney is author of All- American Monster: The Unauthorized Biography of Timothy McVeigh (Prometheus Books, 1996).

Cover Image: T.C. Boyle, Wikipedia   Santa Barbara, California—It’s like he’s saying, “I’ll take you there.” When it comes to freethinkers, American author T. C. Boyle (Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Southern California) is the Daliesque prince, a commentator for the tragicomedy that is our mutual existence. When the subtle meets the …

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